THE SUB

A Study in Witchcraft

By Thomas M. Disch

Knopf. 285 pp. $24

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand

Thomas M. Disch's new novel, The Sub, is a bracingly vitriolic dose of pure Northern Gothic that shows what might happen to Lake Wobegon if David Lynch came to visit. The fourth in Disch's Supernatural Minnesota novels (the most recent was The Priest: A Gothic Romance), The Sub returns to the small town of Leech Lake, whose inhabitants are all mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Most dangerous of all is the seemingly innocuous Diana Turney. Diana is a substitute teacher, a dowdy vegetarian with a sadistic streak who educates her second graders on the horrors of hamburger meat. ("Hamburgers come from cows. You know that. The cows that you can see off to the side of the highway browsing on the lovely green grass.") She is also, as the novel opens, a witch who has just become aware of her powers. These seem to be linked to the recently recovered memory of her abuse at the hands of her father, a nasty piece of work named Wes Turney. Wes's undying essence, his "potentiality for evil," has taken root in the smokehouse where he took Diana as a child:

"If it could have been mapped, it would have resembled layer upon layer of delicate dark lace billowing about the smokehouse, swelling and shrinking like the translucent membranes of a sea anemone, rising sometimes above the small building like a plume of smoke from the chimney, at other times spreading through the underbrush like cilia, searching for the sustenance it was always denied: revenge, recompense, release."

These postmortem desires are fed when Diana returns to the family home in Leech Lake. By most standards, this wouldn't be a normal homecoming. Diana's sister, Janet, botched the murder of Janet's philandering husband, Carl, and is now in prison for a year; Diana's job is to care for her brother-in-law and his 4-year-old daughter until Janet's release.

But what Paris is to romance, Leech Lake is to dysfunctionality -- a redneck haven that would be anyone else's idea of Hell. Against this seedy backdrop of strip malls, tract housing and defunct farms, not to mention a prison, the Wabasha reservation and TacoNite Casino, Diana's peculiar gift for sowing mayhem is barely noticed. Her transformation into a modern-day Circe is as believable as the beauty-parlor visit that leaves her blonde and glamorous, irresistible to the men (and women) she enslaves. She acquires some dried mandrake root, used by the local Native Americans in their sweat-lodge rituals, and soon learns that the noxious herb gives her the ability to perceive a human's animal form. Plying her new talent at local watering holes, Diana is not surprised to discover that most men are pigs. But she is delighted to find that when she spikes their Jack Daniels with mandrake, men actually become pigs, who quickly find a new, though temporary, home in a sty on Diana's property.

Disch's plotting is extremely intricate. His web of interwoven characters, while small, is equally complex and sometimes confusing. In the early chapters in particular, one has the feeling of a newcomer being driven around a small town by a loquacious host who gleefully points out the homes of the town drunk, slut, wife-beater, and so on. But soon they all sort themselves out, and The Sub becomes a genuine page-turner. Diana meets her match when she picks up the wrong guy at the casino -- Merle, a local low-rent shaman who also happens to be a serial killer. Merle enslaves Diana as she has enslaved others. Soon there is little doubt that those pigs will meet an unhappy fate, as will the woman who becomes a feral cat. It all makes you think twice about the number of roadkills you see in rural counties.

Disch revels in being an Equal Opportunity Misanthrope: No one is innocent, and (nearly) everyone is punished. In its final pages, The Sub takes on the timeless quality of a fairy tale -- a real fairy tale, like "The Juniper Tree" or "Hansel and Gretel," the kind of story that keeps you awake at night even as it enthralls you with its brutally detached descriptions of bloodletting and incest, metamorphoses and murder avenged. Disch's novel is an icily potent cocktail, spiked with just enough mandrake to make you think twice about that nice-looking lady at the next barstool.

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Black Light."